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But This Rough Magic

The Tempest

By Hannah Hessel Ratner

But this rough magic
I here abjure; and, when I have required
Some heavenly music (which even now I do)
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
Act 5, Scene 1                                                                                                                                             

In the world of theatre, sorcery equals stagecraft. The Shakespeare Theatre Company produces “rough magic” with every rise of the metaphorical curtain. The stage has always been a space for wizardry. Theatre magic, a mixture of technical skills and imagination, allows audience members to forget reality and get swept away in storytelling.

The Tempest’s enchantments require a titanic effort from STC’s crew and production team, whether it’s wrangling 52-footlong puppets—or making someone fly. “We are operating in four dimensions,” explains Production Stage Manager Joseph Smelser when talking about Ariel’s highflying stunts. To make actress Sara Topham soar effortlessly around the stage, five people behind the scenes perform 148 cues, including one sequence that requires crew members to jump off a 16-foot ladder, immediately scramble back up and dive off again. To Smelser, the crew’s success is a type of magic: “To work well, it’s a mind-meld.”

To create Set Designer Lee Savage’s desert island, Mark Prey, STC’s Technical Director, sought out a material familiar to the young: children’s play sand. STC first dipped their toe in a bright red sandy stage in 2005 for The Persians (also directed by Ethan McSweeny). For Tempest, the five tons of sand is a mixture of three colors—grey, latte and white—that together provide a more realistic depth.

Prop Shop Director Chris Young admits the sand provided a bit of a challenge. While working on the stage, the crew had to be sure no stray tools, nails or screws fell into the sand. “With many of the actors bare foot in the sand, all the staff working on deck had to keep a careful inventory of what we brought out. Any lost equipment or hardware meant we had to stop and sift the area we were working in until the missing pieces were found.”

Every night when Prospero renounces his powers, he destroys his staff. Created by Props Painter/Sculptor Eric Hammesfahr, the staff was designed to look like driftwood and adorned with a glittering fragment of quartz, so it seems to come directly from the magic of the island. In fact, there are two identical staffs, one solid and one that is rigged to break.

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